About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon

Soon smarter than us

Three articles in the last couple of weeks didn’t shine quite enough attention on Artificial Intelligence.

Sandisk announced a 400 gigbit microsd memory card for your phone. Huawei announced a new processor chip for phones that features a “neural processing unit,” or NPU. The Economist newspaper has a couple of stories, one about AI being able to determine sexual orientation (straight or gay) from photographs, another about AI’s ability to determine not just who you are, but your mood, even your politics. Continue reading

Fear 3

Irish talks about fear. She fell, crushed half her face and lost her right eye. Of course she’s afraid of going back on the boat. No job and savings wiped out by divorce, she fears medical bills, as do many in much better shape. She fears for our relationship.

After losing her job, the day before she fell, she asked me if I “could still love an unemployed miscreant.”  Her question was not out of the blue. This isn’t the first time Irish and I had gotten together.

We had connected on a dating site years ago, and met for dinner. We talked and laughed for three hours and closed the restaurant, but I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere: she’s conservative and I’m liberal, she lived with two adult sons and three dogs in a rented house 150 miles away from where I lived, I was on my way out of the country for weeks or months … and I intended to buy a sailboat and head for adventure.

After our date, I hugged her goodnight. She seemed so tiny and frail in my arms. That was that, because I wanted to be a gentleman.

A month or two later, after I returned from my trip, we had plans for a second date. While I was gone, the country went on daylight savings but I had not reset the clock in my truck. She called.

“Where are you?”

“On my way, but still early.”

“Um, no, you’re late.”

“It’s only 2:30, we’re meeting at 3 …

“It’s 3:30.”

“Oh no!” I said, when I realized what happened. “Please wait for me. We’ll get everything on the appetizer menu, and anything you want for dinner, I’m not that far away … please?”

She found that endearing, she waited, and we had another wonderful, four-hour conversation. That’s when she told me about her Parkinson’s Disease, and her fibromyalgia, and migraines and spinal fusion after she fell and cracked vertebrae in her neck …

It was full disclosure.

But the person you tell these things needs to know what you’re talking about, and I didn’t really have a clue.

We didn’t kiss after that date, either. While I could see a wonderful friendship, I still didn’t think it would evolve into romance, and I was trying to be a gentleman.

We had a third date. We kissed, and discovered we had what she called “kiss compatibility.” I still remember the first time I felt her fingertips on my skin.

Then I bailed out.

As she was planning our fourth date, and talking about when I could meet her best friend, and her sons. I was reading about Parkinson’s Disease and fibromyalgia and brooding on “two adult sons at home, three dogs, part-time job, a disabling disease that at some point will require constant care and then kill her…”

Just how does all this fit onto a sailboat headed to Fiji? The sailboat dream had been my refuge for decades, had prevented me from making horrible life compromises that I was otherwise willing to make for all the wrong reasons, had “kept me afloat” in more ways than one.

I knew I was falling for her, but we did not have the same future lined up, and I thought it was better not to get too much farther down the road of romance or the damage would be awful.

Three dates and out, I thought was being a gentleman.

But I could not stop musing on the way she said simply, “Hey” when she texted or called me or answered the phone when I called. That was really weird. Just the simple, drama free, glad to hear from you, “Hey.” It took a while, but I checked back in, just saying “hey.”

Predictably and justifiably, Irish responded, “What the hell do you want?” or something like that. “You made me feel I was unlovable because of my Parkinson’s.”

“It was because I could fall in love with you that Parkinson’s scared me away,” I told her.

“We don’t know what and how the Parkinson’s will progress,” she told me. “Many things could happen.”

After a while, she agreed to fourth date. We’ve been together since. So, she’s not being unreasonable to fear for our relationship. I’ve had a few fears of my own.

After she fell, I spent the first night in the hospital pacing and waiting for her to come out of surgery. I spent the next night on the couch in her recovery room listening to hospital sounds and nurses who came in every two hours to administer pain meds and antibiotics, check her pulse, oxygen, etc.

I was far beyond tired by the next day after two nights without sleep and drinking far too many cups of coffee and cans of ginger ale. The caffeine and sugar were no longer keeping me alert, but had morphed into agitation.

“Can you love an unemployed miscreant, with only one eye?” Irish mumbled the question from her damaged mouth. She remembers being desperately afraid of my answer while knowing that then and there I could not answer “No.” I gave her a kiss, a squeeze. I don’t remember what I said.

“You told me something I needed to hear, that I hoped was true,” she said later.

But when I left the hospital to shower, and buy a sweatshirt and T-shirt to replace ones they cut off her in the emergency room, her fear burrowed into me and became mine: ugly, self-absorbed, anguish-ladened fear that seemed match, drop for drop, the cold, soaking, wind-driven rain that pounded the streets of Victoria.

I was once afraid of flying, so I bought an old plane and became a (mediocre) pilot. I love to travel to far-away places where English is rarely spoken with absolutely no clue what I’m going to do after the first night. I drive a race car at 160 mph through blind corners inches away from other cars.

At an age when many are looking forward to a lounge chair and afternoon of televised football (that I never cared much about before the Seahawks), I bought a sailboat. I’d never really sailed before, but the plan was to take it to Alaska for a shakedown this summer and then on to south, maybe even New Zealand.

I’m an adrenalin junkie. That’s not unusual for someone of my background. I’m also “a runner.” The closer I become to someone, the more I love them, the greater the danger I will fear my own vulnerability and run, sometimes for a pretext so flimsy it’s obvious I’m running from fear. It’s my inheritance.

Two days after Irish fell I set foot again on the boat and looked to see where she fell.The wood rail where she struck had no sign of the impact, but it was so much harder than her delicate cheek, nose, skull, and eye. There were spots of blood on the deck and I wondered which held fragments of her burst and missing cornea.

Sleepless, feeling helpless, I growled through clenched teeth at the boat.

“Why!? Why?!? You jealous bitch, why did you do this to her!?”

Cold and indifferent, the boat declined to answer.

I knew I was being foolish, that the boat had done nothing, the boat was an inanimate object, that the fall was an accident, a misstep, a bad decision in footwear, a breaking of Boating Rule #1 to always keep a hand for yourself, hold on to something when moving about.

But I was irrational, anger was setting in, even as I know better than most that all anger has its roots in fear. All the fears that chased me away from Irish the first time returned, with a vengeance for their exile. Almost as quickly as I had boarded the boat, I showered off the sleepless hospital night and headed out into rain pelting downtown Victoria and I walked, looking for something to look for so I did not have to go back to the hospital quite yet.

I blamed Parkinson’s for the fall, not the stupid heavy socks. I howled at myself for ignoring my earlier “knowledge” of the inevitability of Irish’s immobilization, I cried that that she would be helpless unless I helped her, that the sailboat was now gone, adventure a thing of memory, that I was about to become … be … immobilized, encased in my own fat and bound by chains of duty.

And then, St. Francis showed up in the form of a prayer I remembered vaguely from countless meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. It wasn’t like I didn’t bring my own host of disabilities to this relationship, after all.

“… Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.”

Why this prayer? Unlike Irish, I’m no Catholic and some would say I’m not even a Christian. That’s okay, I’ve long thought of myself as a Taoist and I’ve been known to debate the definition of God, wherever She may dwell.

But the prayer brought quick, deep relief. It seemed I saw through the words and into the meaning of how, and why, St. Francis sought to comfort than be comforted. Then I heard Irish speak.

“I don’t want anything from you that is not given with a glad heart,” she said to me. She had told me once that she taught her boys this lesson, and I heard it as plainly as if she were standing beside me, as if the narcotics that bound her to bed in the hospital had given her the gift of teleportation.

I didn’t know the future. I didn’t need to know. Two miles away lay a woman I loved in a hospital bed, terribly injured. I had not only the duty but a deep desire to be there with her, make sure that she had a ginger ale if she wanted a sip, pain medication if she was hurting, to comfort her if she was frightened, as she was sure to be.

The memory of the sound of her face hitting the coaming on the boat makes me shudder, and always will, but I wanted to be there. I still am.

We’re planning to take the boat to Alaska in June. It’s been about eight weeks since Irish fell on Foxy, our boat.  We are on the ferry now, on our way back to Victoria. In two hours we’ll be back on board, for the first time for Irish, after many misgivings for me.

But it’s time.

Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

Piling on

Irish’s father died last Saturday. We’ll drive from the mountains to the valley tomorrow, pick up her sons in Eugene, and then head to the Oregon coast where the service will be held the next day.

So much for 2017 making up for last year. The girl didn’t have enough on her plate over the last six weeks? Parkinson’s, losing her job over Thanksgiving, four days later the fall that nearly took her life and did take her eye? Surgery days before Christmas, and before the middle of January, her father dies.

I don’t know if I could have withstood all she’s been hammered with over the last eight weeks, but not once, in the year we’ve been together, have I heard her say, “Why me?” Though she has sworn at times at how this glorious adventure together keeps getting interrupted, she seems to have no sense of entitlement. On one of our earliest dates, she said “Why not me?” with characteristic toughness, and a shrug.

His death was not sudden. He was 91, and needed oxygen to get from his chair to the dinner table. But the 6 a.m. phone call from her brother, informing Irish of her father’s death, hit her hard. She was close to her dad. They talked by phone every Sunday, and snippets I could hear were full of gentleness, love and concern.

I could also tell there wasn’t a whole lot of time. For her birthday I surprised Irish with a trip down to southern California in November to spend a weekend with him. She’d also wanted me to meet him, and him to meet me. I did not let my awful fear of commitment get in the way.

When we met, her father was irascible, funny, frustrated and frustrating, gentle and appreciative, a lover of football and as far as I can tell, a true hero. I link to his obituary here, because I think it’s important for people to read about what America was, compared to how it seems today. I was humbled and grateful to share time with him.

Not a surprise. He’s her dad.

Facebook

At the root of our “being,” just below consciousness and mostly hidden from us, pre-spoken emotions and urges guide our behaviors. As individuals we share many if not most of these, though where we fall on any one scale may be different from one to another.

You may have one glass of wine and be content, but your brother’s seven are not nearly enough.

You may be happy to sit quietly with a book while your sister must go out to a movie to allay a slight anxiety at not being “with people.” Or you may stay home because of a slight anxiety of being out in a crowd.

You may be still married after decades to your high school sweetheart, while a brother’s series of broken relationships paint a picture of him, not his partners.

The emotions and responses to these situations, some learned and some epigenetically triggered, lie on wiring that evolved over the millennia to promote the success of various strands of our DNA. But evolution is complicated, and responses harmful to the individual may be beneficial to the family, the band, the tribe, or society over time.

Addictions do not create something new. They operate on mechanisms that evolved to guide our behavior: dopamine and endorphin splashes in our brain that once required discovery of a full berry bush, or the sharing of spoils of the hunt, or the grooming of a mate or family member, can now be triggered by the point of a needle, flick of flame to nicotine or crack, the flicker of a screen filled with Facebook.

Our responses are not completely our “own.” They precede thought and word, lie at deeper levels of behavior where we are marionettes, our strings the promise of reward. We alter this only when we are quiet, aware, detached, intentional.

Fear

by Jane Miller

Fear comes like the fog – “on little cat feet.” I had thought I was only afraid of dentists, but now I am faced with stomach-gripping anxiety and heart-skipping panic.

I’m afraid …

… we’re going up to the boat in less than two weeks.

… sometimes I almost remember the fall and the impact that took my right eye and crushed my face.

… the medical bills I’ve racked up over two countries seem insurmountable.

… I don’t have a job and given my list of physical injuries and diseases, I am not likely to find one.

… we’re planning on Alaska this summer – three months on the boat, sailing the Inside Passage.

… sometimes I still don’t know if I wouldn’t place second in Erik’s heart to the question of “Jane or the boat?”

Yep. Fear about a lot.

And then, the preternaturally cheerful part of my soul begins to break through the gloom, sunshine burning off the fog of a chill morning. Even though I do not have answers or a plan for almost anything, I am pretty sure it will all work out.

One. Learning to sail has been on my list for as long as I can remember. My Irish ancestors were ship captains and engineers who came over in the 1860s. My great-grandfather captained a clipper ship, the General Knox, out of Thomaston, Maine, down around the Cape, up to San Francisco, and back and forth to England.

My first time on the boat was magical. Our teacher said I was a natural, but that was before my fear about heeling and capsizing came to the fore. I have learned and continue to learn, though, about sailboat dynamics, lines and rigging, standing and balancing, navigation and currents.

In my heart I knew I was ready for sailing, but that was before the fall.

Two. The “fall.” So many people want to know if I remember it, and until recently the answer has been that I remember the fall (sort of) but not the impact. But just last night before sleep crept over the snow to my pillow, I remembered: my foot not quite making the landing, the sense of falling, my face as it hit the unforgiving fiberglass and mahogany.

I don’t know if it’s real, though. I don’t remember hitting the deck or being wedged between the seat and the binnacle. The only thing I remember for certain is being lifted, set down so gently, a towel pressed into my hands.

I don’t want to remember the rest. That bit of amnesia is what’s enabling me to even think about setting foot on the boat.

Three. I received excellent medical care in Canada and Oregon. Dr. James Taylor (yes, that’s his name) in Victoria, BC, tried hard to save my eye but knew it was a long shot all the way. The care I received at OHSU has been phenomenal. But the specialized surgeries, with appointments and follow-ups, tests and medications, along with the prosthesis, are beyond expensive. And in America, no job means no affordable healthcare.

So I’m buying insurance for the year at a price that will wipe out every cent I have saved. That leaves my household bills, car payment, insurance …

It’s no one’s burden but my own, but sometimes I wish the government would be able to provide help quickly and compassionately to people who can’t work anymore, instead of relying on the Social Security Administration to force people to apply and reapply, hire a lawyer, wait, and then – maybe – be granted disability.

Four. Alaska. Life on the boat, in port, costs almost the same as life in Sisters. It’s still just the two of us, we buy groceries, do laundry, work on maintenance … The list is pretty long, but when we are in Sisters we do the same thing.

Sailing to Alaska is different. With no real crew, it’d be just us. The boat was designed to be sailed by two people, but I’m pretty sure what they had in mind was NOT me. It’s going to be last summer’s trip to Desolation Sound multiplied by 12. On that trip, the fan belt broke and clogged the turbocharger, we broke a line clutch, and we jury-rigged a way to shift gears using two strings. I almost left completely in a fit of pique, and then we motored a marathon 22 hours over two days breathing diesel fumes from the poorly-running engine to reach Anacortes in time for me to go back to work.

It was also beautiful beyond words, more fun than I imagined it could be, and exciting and rewarding as I gained new skills and grew more comfortable on the water. We can do this! It just might take some additional help.

Five. Erik and I had a discussion one night earlier this week or last, once we reached the warmth and security of the treehouse. Concerns had been brewing, some new, some not, about my dedication to strength training, my fear of capsizing, his desire to keep the sailboat because of the time and money committed, about his need to spend his time doing, not lounging.

He was wrong about some, maybe right about a couple. When I am pushed to do something, I won’t. Simple. Stubborn. Irish. And sometimes childish. All the literature on Parkinson’s Disease lists the need for fitness, but I never suggested we Barco-lounge for hours watching football, although I do love the game.

However, I understand his concerns. I need to be stronger than I was and definitely than I am after five weeks of operations and recoveries from the injuries of my fall. When the boat heels, I range from mildly discomfited to panicked. I’m improving, but I don’t hide it well. I cannot spend my days on the boat scared we’ll capsize, which is virtually impossible in the kind of sailboat we have.

But as we talked just a couple of days ago, we want to be together, on the water, or in Sisters, or traveling. And that’s what matters.

I am still afraid. I will be until I step across the water from dock to boat. But I decided when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and I tell myself again and again … I am not going to be defined by my adversities. I am going anyway.

Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

3:30 am

At 3:30 in the morning of a day in the first week of January it’s almost dark outside but for reflections of starlight off faceted sparkles of fresh snow that’s been falling since before dinner yesterday.

Another year.

The to-do list stretches for pages and hasn’t changed much in months which piles guilt upon guilt for my aimlessness, inattention, lack of focus. I’m writing but not publishing, floating but not boating, sitting and not scrubbing, driving not to any destination. But that’s so often what I do.

Still, it was a year like no other. I was wandering about without plan, fulfilling duties and wants and needs not necessarily in that order. She didn’t just fall into my life, I extended a tentative invitation that was accepted with complete abandon. I wasn’t using the better judgement that failed me so often in the past because there was something in how she danced to my music and her fingertips brushed my cheek and I couldn’t stay away or push away, so often my way. Surprisingly she didn’t run away when my smallnesses were put on display.

Another year.

At 3:30 in the morning it’s easy to lose faith that everything will get done, that everything is as it should be, that obligations can be met, that it will all work out. Worries at this hour expand larger than accomplishments which shrink to triviality. From dust to dust seeks to leave out the middleman and shortcut through my soul. I do this once in a while.

Falling snow absorbs every sound and silence lays inches deep all around except for a cough or sniffle in the other room interspersed with sighs of sleep when she slips back into slumber.

After she fell last month and broke her lovely face she asked if I could still love her, and I didn’t know how to respond to words spoken in a language I was never taught as a child and don’t understand. After she fell I cared for her as if I cared for nothing else and was better for it. Ask me to do anything or everything and I will try to do more but I am a wordsmith and words only point at what’s real, to speak must not substitute for what is best shown. If I show love why ask?

Another year.

St. Michael offers a candle in the night, ’tis better to love than be loved, to comfort than be comforted, to forgive than be forgiven; to forget oneself is to remember.

Softness slips up from those words to suture my roughed-up serenity. The coffee pot clicks and snaps and the freezer hums and plocks cubes into the bin, walls creak and crack with contractions from near zero cold.  Today she gets stronger, the lists are winnowed and expand again because that’s what they’re for, snow sloughs from the roof in dawning light and soon we’ll be on our way to wherever we’re supposed to be.